Sunday, November 28, 2010

Targeting the Public

Pioneer Courthouse Square is the central plaza of downtown - often referred to as the 'living room' of Portland and is praised as one of the best public spaces for it's flexibility and programming

:: image via MetroBabel

In this regard, the space hosts a number of large-scale public events, rallies, concerts, and gatherings - including the annual tree lighting ceremony, which is typically a large draw for families,

:: image via PDXPipeline

While the specter of terrorist attack is on people's minds when aggregating in public, this is something that most folks feel would happen in a bigger city.  Thus I was literally shocked to hear of a plot, by a 19 year old Somali who graduated from high school in Beaverton, to detonate a bomb during this year's ceremony, which happened on Friday, November 26th.
"The bomb, which was in a van parked off Pioneer Courthouse Square, was a fake — planted by F.B.I. agents as part of the elaborate sting — but “the threat was very real,” Arthur Balizan, the F.B.I.’s special agent in charge in Oregon, said in a statement released by the Department of Justice. An estimated 10,000 people were at the ceremony on Friday night, the Portland police said."
:: image via New York Times

Our sense of relatively safety in Portland was part of the approach - as he was quoted in the New York Times: "Federal agents said Mr. Mohamud thought Portland would be a good target because Americans “don’t see it as a place where anything will happen... It’s in Oregon; and Oregon, like you know, nobody ever thinks about it,” an affidavit quotes him as saying."

The bomber had been under the watch of law enforcement for months, meaning there wasn't imminent danger for the people at the festival, as mentioned: "...the F.B.I. had been tracking Mr. Mohamud since 2009 and his planning unfolded under the scrutiny and even assistance of undercover agents, officials said." That said, it's got to shake people up to hear of this happening so close.

This isn't an isolated event, as mentioned in the article: "His case resembles several others in which American residents, inspired by militant Web sites, have tried to carry out attacks in the name of the militant Islamic movement only to be captured in a sting operation.  In a similar case in September 2009, a 19-year-old Jordanian was arrested after placing a fake bomb at a 60-story Dallas skyscraper. The same month, a 29-year-old Muslim convert was charged with placing a bomb at the federal building in Springfield, Ill. And in October, a 34-year-old naturalized American citizen born in Pakistan was arrested and charged with plotting to bomb the Washington subway after meeting with undercover agents and discussing his plans and surveillance activities."

Does this change the essence and usage of public spaces, transit, or other significant targets, or is it something that is impossible to think about and lead a somewhat normal existence?  It's heartening to see that the law enforcement and intelligence is working to find these plots and protect people from all areas from danger.  It is easy to become complacent as residents (and maybe that's a good thing, as living in fear of the possible dangers would make it hard to leave the house in the morning) - so the hidden network of danger seems to become distant - happening elsewhere around the world, or sometimes creeping into the large cities of the United States.  Oklahoma City proved that high profile targets are sometimes not what we think, and the enemies may not come from outside.  The danger, everywhere is real.

Beyond the continuing efforts of law enforcement, how, if at all, do we react, and how does this impact the form and function of cities?  Do we evolve more security and barricades?   Disallow the gathering of large groups?  Do public spaces become less public?

:: image via Picassa

More cameras, surveillance, metal detectors?  Is transit, which creates density of people, perceived as dangerous - making people flee to the 'safety' of the singular car?  While not the Green Zone in Baghdad, it's interesting to see how this shapes the modern city.  The securing of buildings has definitely received plenty of attention - and the ability to control access points, beef up materials, essentially defend an object.  While much has been made of federal building security, making a better, more stylish bollard, is still using a bunker mentality that isn't really applicable for public spaces.

:: image via Thinking Shift

It's a bit different when operating in open space, as there are infinite entry points, making the perimeter harder to defend.  I was thinking of precedents, and immediately looked at the well-publicized, award-winning security measures for the Washington Monument.  While inventive in the way it doesn't detract from the monument itself, and while technically more open, this is merely a different version of the bunker protecting an object - not a way to secure outdoor public space - surrounding walls, underground tunnels forming a perimeter around the monument.

::  image via ASLA

Urban space is even different, with a context of buildings, streets, rooftops, sidewalks, leading to a massively porous boundary to spaces.  Do we look to theories like Newman's 'Defensible Space' or measures like CPTED - which are directed towards crime-prevention, or do these not work for large public gatherings?  Do physical changes make a difference, are they viable options, or do these make economic sense?  Or are public gatherings a minimal danger compared to protection of vital infrastructures that could be more catastrophic?  Or is it something we target with sophisticated technology, using an expanded network of public surveillance to target people and patterns within amorphous, hard to contain spaces like transit and public gatherings?

:: image via ZDnet 

I remember being in New York City soon after the attacks of September 11, 2001 - and although it never crossed our minds to attend the large gathering in Times Square on New Years (and there was some debate about whether the event would go forward) - while we were skirting around the area, we wanted to see what was up.  It gave the illusion of a military zone, with massive mobilization of police and barricades at every street, multiple checkpoints.  Massive security to maintain a public spectacle and tradition of our cities to gather and celebrate.  Even then, the spaces of Times Square were still full of revelers, despite the implied danger - unwilling to let fear rule their lives.

:: Times Square (circa 1954) - image via Times Square NYC

The key will be to give enough feeling of security, and use our available tools - without bunkerizing our cities with physical objects that ruin the experience of access and publicness that people desire.  Our reactions to these events - even the unsuccessful ones - will be telling as to how we will live in cities for years to come.



  2. Very interesting post.

    If you are interested in the topic of violence and the public space, you might find some insight in the book City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo by Teresa Caldeira. It discusses the effects of (mostly private) security on the urban environment, "legitimate" forms of violence (i.e. police/army vs. private security forces), and a number of interrelated topics.

  3. Great article!
    FYI... that time square photo is from new years 1954. Admiral didn't start selling TV's until after WW2 and 20,000 leagues under the sea in Cinemascope was released in 1954... and i think that sign reads "stay alive in '55"

  4. Thanks... I thought the Chevy ad was a bit odd in 1904 as well... there's no attribution to the actual photo, just information about the history of the Times Square event.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.